The nightmare scenario in any presidential election is that a candidate wins the most votes yet does not actually get elected. This sort of thing leaves millions upon millions of voters across the country feeling bitter and cynical about the democratic process, and that feeling can last throughout the new president’s entire term. Could that happen this year? Might Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump get the most votes but still not become president?
It definitely could happen, though it’s more likely for Clinton to win the popular vote but lose the Electoral College than for Trump to win the popular vote but lose the Electoral College. In the former scenario, what would probably happen is that there would be an extremely high turnout in solidly red states. If, for example, many more voters flooded to the polls in Texas to vote for the Democratic candidate than usually do, this would give Hillary Clinton a huge boost in the popular vote. But because Donald Trump will almost certainly win Texas and its electors anyway, those votes don’t make much of a difference. FiveThirtyEight calculates that there is a 10.5 percent chance of Clinton winning the popular vote but losing the Electoral College, whereas there’s only a 0.5 percent chance of that happening to Trump.
This is just the way that presidential elections work in America, as it’s more of a contest of racking up states rather than earning more votes than your opponent. The most recent time this happened was, famously, in the 2000 election, when Al Gore won about 550,000 more votes than George W. Bush. But it was Bush who became president thanks to Florida, a state where the recount stretched the election into December.
Before 2000, the last time the winner of the election did not receive the most votes was way back in 1888. This was the election between Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland. President Cleveland, running for reelection, received 90,000 more votes than Benjamin Harrison. But Harrison won 20 states to Cleveland’s 18, and so Benjamin Harrison was elected. Part of the reason for this was that Benjamin Harrison was able to very narrowly win New York, which was a swing state at the time. This was especially tough for Grover Cleveland considering he was the former governor of New York.
The 1888 election was actually the third time the winner didn’t get the most votes. It also occurred in the election of 1876, a race so brutal that it makes the 2016 election look like a cakewalk. That year, Rutherford B. Hayes ran against Samuel J. Tilden. It was Tilden, the Democratic candidate, who won over 250,000 more votes than Hayes did. But Hayes won thanks to Florida, Louisiana, Ohio and South Carolina, four states whose outcomes were so heavily in dispute that the Compromise of 1877 had to be struck just to put an end to the whole thing.
And the first instance of this outcome ever occurring was in 1824, another contentious election. During this race, there were four men on the ticket, all of whom were members of the same party: John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, William Crawford and Henry Clay. Andrew Jackson got the most votes, 38,000 more than the second place winner, John Quincy Adams. But because the vote was divided between four candidates, nobody got a majority in the Electoral College, and so the House of Representatives had to pick the winner, a power they are given in the 12th Amendment to the Constitution. They picked John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson was extremely bitter, accusing John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, the Speaker of the House, of striking a “corrupt bargain.” This cast a shadow over Adams’ entire presidency, and Andrew Jackson would have his revenge four years later when he decisively beat Adams in the election of 1828.
After such a heated election cycle, an end result like this is difficult to even imagine, so hopefully history does not repeat itself this evening.